The Educational Potential of VR

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for a long time now, but undoubtedly Google’s cheap cardboard viewers that work with any modern smartphone have made this technology more available than ever.  This is a huge development for education, as it has opened the market up and content in both 360 and VR is being added daily.  Youtube has a 360 channel, and new content is making it possible to go anywhere, experience anything whenever you desire.  For a geography teacher, this is an amazing development… from the comfort of your classroom you can transport students to the Amazon, to the Favelas in Rio or even experience life in a refugee camp through this excellent immersive film:

Clouds over Sidra

The whole world is now available to not just see, but to experience too. So why use VR and 360 films instead of the usual video?  Put simply, the ability to look for yourself and not be shown where to look creates the feeling of being there.  This immersive experience is incredibly powerful for students, and has the potential, when used well, to create long term memories and they are therefore good learning experiences.  This is not confined to the humanities, the sciences are also set to benefit from VR – Curioscope’s Virtuali-Tee shirt is going to transform ways in which we can learn about the human body.

The starting point for the use of VR in Bolton School Boys’ Division was the excellent Google Expeditions day, which we were luck enough to be chosen for.  Every student in years 7-9 had the opportunity to experience an aspect of either the Geography, Classics or Biology curriculum using the excellent expeditions app and the Cardboard viewers (Google brought everything – viewers, phones and their own network). The process works in a simple way, the teacher uses a tablet to ‘guide’ students around the virtual world.  By pressing the screen on their device teachers can show students where to look and therefore teach them as though they are there.  If we were to refer this back to the TEEP pedagogical model, this would be used as part of the ‘Present New Information’ phase.  But my question was, as it always is: How much can this actually help students learn?  And is it really helping them learn?

The year 8 boys experienced a virtual expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, but prior to this I tested their existing knowledge.  The majority 90% had never studied rainforests before so the content was going to be completely new.   After they had experienced the VR simulation, they were surveyed to assess how much they felt they learnt and how much they enjoyed the experience.  Unsurprisingly, because it is new, the questions about engagement were very positive (Ave 4.3 with 5 being a strongly agree response and a SD of only 0.7).  However, engagement is a poor proxy for actual learning so it was important to see how much they felt they had learnt.  Again the scores came out positive, with a low SD and a mean of just under 4 (3.96).  A quick run through of Cronbach’s Alpha shows that positive response to all questions was reliable (strong correlation of 0.94) with little variation in response across all questions.

One of the more interesting responses was about VR helping students to co-construct knowledge together.  You would think that being in your own headset, basically on your own, would create an isolated experience.  However, observations of the actual experience showed that students would guide each other where to look, therefore creating that feeling of being there together which was reflected in their response to that question.  However, none of these questions alone demonstrate actual learning.  As I said earlier, in order to assess learning students were tested for prior knowledge and I then run the test again two weeks after the session to see if any of the new knowledge had stayed in.  The questions that were asked specifically referred to the Rio Negro area of the Amazon, looking at low level responses of description and then higher level  responses focussing on explanation.  I was pleased to see that the same sample of boys who took the first test could all answer the lower level response where previously they couldn’t.  Even more pleasing was that 88% could explain about nutrient leaching in the higher level responses.  Clear evidence that students had learnt new information form the process, although admittedly, from a small sample size.

So what next?  I can see VR being a really useful addition to a teachers’ toolbox, a really powerful way of presenting new information to students.  But for us at Bolton School, we also want to create our own content… more of that in another blog!